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Refuse workers refuse; the strikes are off the rails

Last-minute bids and pushy deadlines are not cooperative, but appalling—especially with the public sector

By Aidan Bridgeman

Image courtesy of Calum Cape via Flickr

Scotland—and the wider UK—have been rocked by strikes as of late. What seems a trivial local issue in Glasgow may turn out to be reflective of far wider trends, as many Whitehall delegates could soon learn the hard way. The run up to COP26 has been a somewhat sore one. A conference of this scale has had Glasgow questioning its own capacity, and with the lacklustre UK government only adding to the squeeze, the prospects aren’t looking encouraging.

The Covid crunch, the conservative cuts, and the general capitalist crushes UK wide have meant high employee dissatisfaction across all sectors. Retail staff, logistic teams and HGV driver shortages have crippled the country; healthcare staff contributions, which cannot be more obvious during the pandemic, have been more than underappreciated.

Perhaps with the exception of healthcare staff, it’s been the private sector taking a stance this year. Poor pay, no covid bonuses or recognition, bad work conditions. It’s been festering. The working class don’t exactly have many levers to pull so when job vacancies are going unfilled all over the country when businesses need it the most, it would be backwards to not make the most out of it.

Frontline workers are being cheated in the name of sky-high profit margins, forcing them to industrial action. Stagecoach and First Glasgow had their own rows some days ago over shady shift work practices and low pay but negotiated a deal. Huge management fees and staff shortages without compensation pushed the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) members to strike, with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef) and Unite members doing the same. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), however, were not so graciously considered in talks.

The ScotRail strikes have been dominating the headlines for the past few weeks—and rightly so. What initially seems like another private sector industrial dispute is, in fact, a public sector one. Much like the Winter of Discontent in the 1970s, what starts in the private sphere ends in the public. With much the same opportunities and levers to pull, including the colossal opportunity that is COP26, the public sector is beginning to realise what’s in front of them.

The RMT dispute went right past private firm Abellio and straight to Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government. I mean, what interest would a private company have in helping the Scottish workforce with nothing in it for them? With their contract expiring next year? Investment would be to no benefit. ScotRail is to fall into state hands by March next year, so this was the perfect opportunity to set a precedent and open up some constructive communication lines! You’d think. Our government has had a different approach.

Minister for Transport Graeme Dey gave RMT a strict deadline of Wednesday the 27th of October to accept any deal on the table. A stonewall approach. He opted to establish a positive relationship with the very union he shall be working closely with soon by labelling them ‘very difficult to establish trust [with].’ The Scottish government stood their ground more by accusing RMT of ‘letting its members down,’ stating they were ‘utterly perplexed.’ Once an initial deal was rejected, they simply accused the union of ‘moving the goalposts’. From what’s supposed to be a progressive and cooperative government for the Scottish people, they aren’t half siding with the business lot. Going on to accuse train staff of threatening to cause chaos at COP26. Incredibly impertinent. The weight that is this UN conference was thrown onto the shoulders of the working man, and if you can’t stand in solidarity with your own workforce and give them the tools to work efficiently and with dignity, that’s on you.

A deal was reached eventually including a one year 2.5% pay rise, a £300 bonus for COP26, and more respectable working conditions and dialogue in the future generally, but not with the happiest of takeaways. Describing it as having a ‘gun held to their heads,’ RMT wasn’t exactly pleased. And understandably so. The fact that this dispute has been ongoing for 18 months and Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government forced a deal at the last minute just before COP26 is reckless and incredibly disrespectful to some of the most important frontline workers.

Similar lessons are being learnt with the council workers strike in Glasgow and further afield. What started as a simple pay dispute has snowballed into a much bigger-picture issue about trust and respect. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), supposedly meant to be on the side of the councils in all this, has been equally tough. Glasgow City Council has been much the same. Refuse workers and teaching staff decided to call for strikes on the 25th of October after a 10-month dispute claim was ignored by the Scottish Joint Council, and after initially having called off the refuse strikes in Glasgow decided to go ahead with them anyway.

It’s the poor that will suffer with this approach by the government. Union density is not concentrated in the very lower working classes, and, in fact, the highest percentage is in the public sector. If the government here isn’t going to act cooperatively with the voices of labour in our society (what little voice they have remaining), the very poorest will have no voice at all.

Any prospect of Scotland aiming to keep a reserve army of labour and ensure wages stay low should be avoided at all costs. Not only will it hurt the pay and working conditions of those in work, but it will act to enable the Tories to continue to demonise the unemployed. It won’t reverse austerity measures imposed upon them, and it won’t help our incredibly unequal economy.

The role of the Scottish government, Scottish councils and Scottish government agencies in public sector industrial disputes is pivotal. So far, their tactics are not entirely reassuring. Going forward they must be supportive of those that keep our society running.


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